Extract: Alat Asem’s Novel “Confessions of a Jade Lord” (时间悄悄的嘴脸)

Available now in e-book form at Kobo.com

An excerpt from the newly published Xinjiang-based novel by Alat Asem,

Confessions of a Jade Lord

《时间悄悄的嘴脸》

Chapter 19

Rechristening a High-rise

In the midst of his hectic days as minor-character-cum-stagehand, Exet the Mouse’s magnificent new sobriquet — “Suet Exet” — fails to resonate. Those two sheep were indeed sacrificed in vain. Afterwards, he didn’t bother to keep his promise to invite the jade lords out to drink either; he embraced his bad luck. “There’s a history to your nickname,” says Eysa ASAP to console him, “and history cannot be rewritten.”

Eysa sets to work quickly seeking a middle-man to lobby for talks to buy all twelve stories of the high-rise that belongs to Big Stick Obul, who dug his first bucket of gold in a coal mine. In the end, it’s Silver-tongue Salam, endowed with the gift of gab that can entice buyer and seller to the negotiating table, who turns the trick.

Salam’s deal-closing skills were first practiced at the Saturday second-hand bike market. As dust danced in the square, he honed his persona and honeyed trap. With help from splendiferous Time, the money in his pocket prospered year after year, and nourished his heart.

After dining on handheld mutton at a scenic riverside venue, Eysa, Mouse, Obul and Salam address the thorny issue of price.

“Ahem,” coughs Salam before he begins.

Deal or no deal, mutual trust shall prevail.

Roasted, stewed or handheld, mutton remains meat all the same.

Heroes of the world, you have all come today!

The magnificent Monkey King is present,

And so is our Uyghur Wise Man, Ependim.

It is cool cash that drives human life.

Today’s chop suey is better than tomorrow’s fresh meat;

promises are no good until they are cooked in the pot.

Today’s victory is today’s Paradise!

The big item on today’s agenda is a high-rise built to last. The seller is a person, not a lord, and the buyer is no one’s servant. My mouth is neither friend nor enemy. It speaks for your mutual interests. Had I ever harbored selfish intentions or betrayed bias toward either party, my tongue could not have secured me this bowl of arbitrator’s rice over the last two decades. The truth behind this, I’m sure you all understand.

The building is new, constructed just five years ago. Buyer and seller both have things itching at their hearts. Each of you knows this. My mouth is a hand that can scratch that itch for you. I do not know the depth of the water, but my sincere hope is that both duck and goose may cross safely. I care not wherefrom my camel guests hail, but obtaining some of the peppercorns, black pepper and ginger root is my goal. ‘Feed your master’s donkeys well and receive a good tip’ is my motto.

Blessed is Eysa Xojayin, and so is our Big Stick Obul, a hero who wrestled his way out of a dark coal pit. Coal Mine Mogul, please quote a price.

The mine owner states his asking price, and the figure is fairly close to the one that Eysa has guessed beforehand. This gives him confidence in the eventual outcome.

Obul is keen to offload his high-rise. It’s a matter of money-laundering, actually. The proceeds from the mines don’t have eyes but they have lips, and he worries that sooner or later that lucre will land him in hot water. Once the building is sold, his mind would be at peace, his tongue confident, and henceforth he could hang out at his leisure.

In the six hours that ensue, Salam’s silver tongue binds the two wicked hearts ever tighter. Eventually the high-rise’s surname changes, and a sizable lot of moolah finds its way into Big Stick Obul’s bank account — an eight-digit sum, in fact. On the ATM card, the dancing digits sigh long and hard; in the freezing underground vault, the bills reminisce over their tainted but exhilarating past. [终]

[Translated by Bruce Humes and Jun Liu. For more information about Alat Asem, click here.]

“Manas” Onstage: Ongoing Moves to Sinicize China’s Three Great Oral Epics

A large-scale, colourful rendition of the Kyrgyz epic Manas (玛纳斯史诗) was staged March 22-23 in Beijing’s ultra-modern Poly Theater. This performance came just two days after the newly anointed President Xi Jinping, speaking at the People’s Congress, cited two of the three great oral epics of non-Han peoples, Manas and the Tibetan-language King Gesar. While he mangled the title of the latter (Xi Jinpingian Sager), their mere mention shows their importance in the Party’s current multiethnic-is-good narrative.

This centuries-old trilogy in verse recounts the exploits of the legendary hero Manas and his son and grandson in their struggle to resist external enemies — primarily the Oirat Mongols and the Khitan —and unite the Kyrgyz people. Along with heroic tales such as Dede Korkut and the Epic of Köroğlu, Manas  is considered one of the great Turkic epic poems.

Experts don’t agree on the epic’s history, but it has undoubtedly been around in oral form for at least several centuries. Composed in Kyrgyz, a language spoken by the Kyrgyz people in northwest Xinjiang and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, it was not available in full in Kyrgyz script until the mid-90s, and only then translated into Chinese. For details on the tribulations of the master manaschi, Jusup Mamay (居素普·玛玛依), who recited his 232,500-line version for prosperity (and was sentenced to a long stint of “reform through labor” during the Cultural Revolution for his efforts), see A Rehabilitated Rightist and his Turkic Epic.

For some time now, scholars at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the state media have been busy “re-packaging” these three epics in a way that emphasizes their Chineseness, while playing down their non-Han origins. The trio, which includes the Mongolian epic Jangar, are now frequently referred to as “China’s three great oral epics” (我国三大史诗), despite the fact that all three were composed in languages other than Chinese by peoples (Kyrgyz, Mongols and Tibetans) in territories that were not then firmly within the Chinese empire.

Media coverage of the Poly Theater production of Manas arguably takes this repurposing one step further.  Entitled Manas Epic Reenacted on the Opera Stage (史诗《玛纳斯》再现歌剧舞台), in the first two-thirds of the widely shared article, there are no mentions whatsoever of the word “Kyrgyz,” or references to the Kyrgyz people or language, or their homelands in Xinjiang or Kyrgyzstan. The opera, it reports, “recreates the magnificent, relentless struggle of the Chinese people [中国人民] for freedom and progress . . .”

Granted, “Kyrgyz” (柯尔克孜) does appear three times in the remaining third of the article, but it appears at the bottom in what is essentially a sidebar that describes the storyline of the opera; far from the eye-catching photos of the opera characters in exotic garb and the opening text that follows those colorful vignettes. Nowhere in the article is it noted that the epic was composed in a Turkic language (Kyrgyz) or that it is still considered by Kyrgyz speakers — on both sides of the border — to be the very incarnation of their identity as a nation.

“The Devils’ Dance”: Review of Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov’s Novel

From childhood, it was drilled into our minds together with our mother tongue: if you start an idea, take it to the finish line ! This is because the Uzbek language’s structure is such that until you get to the end of a verbal phrase, in order not to miss the meaning of the verb, whether the sentence is a question, a supposition or an exclamation, or a sizeable exposition, you won’t know what it means.

(Excerpted from the Literary Saloon’s review of Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance)

Borderland Fiction: “The Mongol Would-be Self-Immolator,” Excerpted from Guo Xuebo’s “Moŋgoliya”

Author Guo Xuebo (郭雪波), a Mongol who grew up speaking the language of his people in the Horchin Grasslands of Inner Mongolia where the novel is set.

Asia-Pacific Journal has published an excerpt I selected and translated from Guo Xuebo’s contemporary work, Moŋgoliya《蒙古里亚》:

Set in China’s 21st-century Inner Mongolia, the novel is a semi-autobiographical tale by Guo Xuebo, a Mongol who grew up speaking the language of his people. It comprises three distinct but intertwined narratives: a spiritual journey, in which the author — ostensibly the narrator — seeks his Shamanic roots, long obscured in post-1949, officially atheist China; vignettes from the Mongolian adventures of Henning Haslund-Christensen, born to a Danish missionary family in 1896, and real-life author of the anthropological masterpiece Men and Gods in Mongolia; and the tribulations of Teelee Yesu, a modern-day fictional Mongol herdsman, considered by many to be the village idiot, whose very survival is threatened by desertification and coal mine truckers running roughshod over his tiny plot of land.

The excerpt that follows craftily satirizes what might be dubbed “wéiwěn paranoia,” the mania around implementing the central government’s “stability maintenance” policy (维稳), and unexpectedly manages to touch on two taboo topics: the exploitation of traditional Mongolian pasture lands by ruthless coal mining firms, and self-immolation, a horrific yet galvanizing form of protest heretofore largely limited to regions inhabited by Tibetans.

To read the introduction and full excerpt, click here. 

Xinjiang-based Novel: Excerpt from Patigül’s “One Hundred Year Bloodline”

 An excerpt from One Hundred Year Bloodline,

a novel by Patigül set in Xinjiang

(《百年血脉》帕蒂古丽 著)

Translated from the Chinese

by Natascha Bruce

 

Growing Up In Da’nanpo

(大南坡上的日子)

We lived southeast of Da’nanpo, deep in the desert and on top of a steep slope, which meant all routes away from the house were downhill; toss a bucket of water from the front door and not a drop would hug the wall. Visitors had to crane their necks to see their destination, and even the flies and mosquitoes had to make a special effort to fly higher, if they wanted to come inside.

The reeds along the bank behind the house grew taller than a one-story building. Clusters of plants joined them, springing from both sides of the water channel. There were broadleaf plantains, red salt cedar, fenugreek, needlegrass, spiderflower, mugwort and dandelions, so densely packed that the ground was barely visible.

In summer, snakes lay basking in the sun on the opposite bank, coiled like hand-pulled noodles, some as thick as the reins for a horse, others slender as a sheep whip. By midday, the adults were all napping, leaving us children to sneak around, stealing watermelons and checking on the snakes. The sun made the snakes too drowsy to pay us much attention, but occasionally there was one that hadn’t quite dropped off yet, lying on the warm sand with its eyes half closed. Seeing us, it’d slither lazily away, twisting a path around our bare little feet, then curl up again and fall asleep.

In winter, the banks were shrouded in snow. On moonlit nights, we could hear the howls of foxes and wolves, and the barks of the hunting dogs as they chased after hares.

Da’nanpo was home to Han, Kazakh, Uyghur and Hui families, and we grew up speaking a range of languages. Our mother’s Gansu dialect seemed to come to us mixed in with her breast milk and, from the time we could walk, we eavesdropped on our father chatting in Uyghur with the neighbors. It was one of our favorite pastimes. We learned who had died, whose baby was being named, whose daughter was getting married, which household was slaughtering a sheep to make polo. We followed behind our father whenever he stepped out for süt chay or mutton, like a pack of little dogs trailing behind their leader, hoping for a go at a bone.

For a fuller picture of the village goings-on, we had to use our Uyghur to help decipher Kazakh, using an Eastern Turkic language to figure out a Western Turkic one. This way, we wouldn’t miss out on any of the weddings or funerals held by the several dozen Kazakh households in Da’nanpo. Polo and mutton were obligatory at any big event, but Kazakh families also laid on a puffy fried dough they called baursak, dried, salty yoghurt balls called kurt, and sweet dried cheese. [Read more…]

Last King of Kuqa: Uyghur Author Patigül Launches her Xinjiang Historical Novel

First enfeoffed by Qing Emperor Qianlong in 1758, this Uyghur dynasty in northeastern Xinjiang eventually boasted a line of eleven monarchs, popularly known as the “King of Kuqa” (库车王). Kuqa was an ancient Buddhist kingdom located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, but to most Chinese today, the term signifies the city of Kuche. The last in the line, Dawut Makosuti (达吾提·麦合苏提), passed away in 2014.

Over the centuries, the various sovereigns met with different fates depending upon palace
intrigue and politics of the era. According to Chinese-language Wikipedia (庫車回部多羅郡王), for instance, the 9th sovereign (買甫思) reportedly died in prison in 1941.

Dawut Makosuti himself, a member of the government during the 1940s, was officially dethroned in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic, and demoted to the more humble position of “translator.” Things got worse during most of the fifties, when he was posted to Aksu and underwent “Reform through Labor” (劳改).  His fate in the Cultural Revolution is not annotated in Wikipedia — hopefully Patigül’s novel will shed some light on those years! — but in 1984 he was rehabilitated, and designated Deputy Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In 2004, his palace (库车王府) was refurbished by the government, and he lived there briefly before his death.

A seminar to promote discussion of the soon-to-be published novel (柯卡之恋) will be held in Yuyao, Zhejiang (浙江余姚) on September 11. It was previously partially published in Jiangnan magazine (江南) under the title, 最后的王. In attendance will be the female author, Patigül (帕蒂古丽), who was raised in a multiethnic Xinjiang village by her Hui mother and Uyghur father, and speaks fluent Uyghur, Kazakh and Mandarin. Her tumultuous, semi-autobiographical family saga, portrayed in moving detail in One Hundred Year Bloodline (百年血脉), has been translated into English by Natascha Bruce, and should be published within 2017 by Chinese Translation & Publishing House.

Patigül’s piece on leaving Xinjiang for life in Zhejiang, Life of a Mimic, also touches boldly on sensitive interethnic issues in China today in a way that simply cannot be matched by mainstream Han authors.

Swedish Readers to Get First Glance into World of China’s Marginalized Reindeer Herders

With the upcoming launch of Ett brokigt band om renens horn, we have a rare instance of a member of China’s dwindling reindeer-herding Evenki telling her people’s story in a European language. Given the historic

“There are some things that, if I don’t record them, will truly be forgotten. I began collecting and collating our traditional handicrafts and legends. I want to use words to leave a record of everything about us Evenki.”

marginalization of Scandinavia’s own semi-nomadic reindeer-herders, the Sami, it is particularly significant to see that the first translation of the novel will appear in Swedish.

Translator and co-publisher Anna Gustaffsson Chen tells me that the book is being printed right now, and should be available “within a few weeks.” It is translated direct from the novel in Chinese, 驯鹿角上的彩带 (lit., colored ribbon on the reindeer’s horns), authored by Keradam Balajieyi, the daughter of the Evenki’s last Shamaness. See here for more about the novel.

The unique lifestyle and gradual 20th-century demise of the Evenki, particularly the Aoluguya Evenki in the Greater Khingan Mountains on the China side of the Amur, has actually been fairly well documented, but usually by outsiders. One of the first written records was penned by Gu Deqing (顾德清), a Han with an intense interest in the Evenki, who — despite efforts by the authorities to protect the isolated Evenki from contact with the outside world — hunted with them in 80s and wrote (the as yet untranslated) 猎民生活日记 (lit., Diary of a Hunting People’s Life). Gu Tao (顾桃), his son by his Manchu wife, has since gone on to shoot several renowned documentaries about them.  See Gu Tao’s Northern Hunting People for dozens of still photos featuring the Evenki lifestyle, handicrafts and their beloved reindeer.

Nor has the plight of the Evenki been neglected by foreign anthropologists. See Forced Relocation amongst the Reindeer-Evenki of Inner Mongolia, by Richard Fraser.

But perhaps the best known tale of the Aoluguya Evenki is the one told in Chi Zijian’s much-translated novel, 额尔古纳河右岸, now available in Dutch, English (The Last Quarter of the Moon), French, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. See here for a multilingual list of related links.

In fact, Chinese-to-Swedish translator Chen is also slated to translate The Last Quarter of the Moon from the Chinese, but has apparently chosen to do Ett brokigt band om renens horn first. It will be interesting to compare the two, because Chi Zijian is a monolingual Han writer imagining herself as an Evenki woman in her 90s, while Balajieyi is writing about her own people.

Altaic Storytelling: What We’re Reading Now (2017.5)

A few years back I read a longish, semi-autobiographical novel by Guo Xuebo (郭雪波), who was raised in the Horchin Grasslands of Inner Mongolia (科尔沁草原) and is a native speaker of Mongolian. Entitled 《蒙古里亚》— an attempt to replicate the sound of “Mongolia” in Chinese, I assume — it comprises three distinct narratives that are intricately intertwined as the novel progresses: A spiritual journey, in which the narrator/author seeks his Shaman roots; various “scenes” from the journey of a real-life, early 20th-century Scandinavian explorer among the Mongols; and the tribulations of Teelee Yesu (特勒约苏), a modern-day Mongolian herdsman, considered by many to be the village idiot, whose very survival is threatened by desertification and the machinations of a greedy coal mining company. I just finished my draft translation of an excerpt from the novel (The Mongol Would-be Self-immolator), in which Teelee is jailed for threatening to self-immolate (自焚). The excerpt all takes place in jail, as a bevy of reporters, Banner honchos and a mysterious security official alternately congratulate, chide and interrogate him, the latter out of fear that — heaven forbid! — he has been inspired by Tibet’s self-immolating Buddhist monks.

I’ve just started reading Manas Resurrected, a short story by Xi’an’s Hong Ke (《复活的玛纳斯》红柯 著). As far as I know, it has not been translated yet. I’m intrigued for two reasons: The reference to the ancient Kyrgyz epic Manas, and the fact that it is set in the early 60s when the Soviet Union’s Kazakhstan did its best to lure Xinjiang residents (mainly Kazakhs and Uyghurs) across the border. Apparently as many as 60,000+ did actually leave China. I don’t know much about this mass movement or the politics behind it, but it has not been forgotten in the PRC. The exodus came up in a short story (Sidik Golden MobOff) and again in a novel (Zuilian) by the Xinjiang-based Uyghur author Alat Asem, both of which I translated. He repeatedly refers to the attraction a new life in Kazakhstan exercised on many Uyghurs during that period, and at times his protagonists speak of the émigrés with great disdain.

Reclaiming the Evenki Narrative: Last Shaman’s Daughter Tells her People’s 20th-century Tale

There are only 30,000 or so Evenki (鄂温克族) on the Chinese side of the Sino-Russian border. But this Tungusic-speaking, reindeer-herding people — particularly the group known as the Aoluguya Evenki — has been the subject of several award-winning documentaries and even a novel that won the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2008. According to an article on the China Writer’s Association web site (最后一位萨满之女), a new novel featuring the Evenki will launch end April.

During 2007-14, Gu Tao (顾桃) shot five films documenting the twilight of the Evenki way of life, including Yuguo and his Mother (雨果的假期) and The Last Moose of Aoluguya (犴达罕). (For an excellent backgrounder on his works in French, click here) Chi Zijian’s novel, The Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸), is based loosely on the same tribe’s often reluctant interactions with outsiders, first with the Japanese invaders under “Manchukuo,” and then the rapacious Han loggers and Marxist cadres of post-1949 “New China,” and has been translated into English (my version), Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, and will soon be available in French.

驯鹿角上的色带But take note: Neither Gu Tao and Chi Zijian are Evenki, though the former’s mother is Manchu (according to BBC’s web site). As far I know, their works have largely been well received in China, but they are not without potential controversy. I have watched several of Gu Tao’s documentaries on a set of CDs (not sure if these are final versions shown at film festivals abroad), and at times they are disturbing, the raw footage of some hard-drinking Evenki in particular. Chi Zijian’s novel is a bold experiment in its own right, as she, a monolingual Han writer, puts herself inside the head of the female Evenki narrator and recounts the entire tale in the first person.

In both cases, I can’t help wondering how these works of art would be viewed by indigenous peoples in Australia, Canada or the US, where “reclaiming the narrative” back from one’s colonizers is nowadays considered absolutely imperative. [Read more…]

Jusup Mamay, Manaschi: A Rehabilitated Rightist and his Turkic Epic

A while back I stumbled upon a short Chinese news item about a newly discovered handwritten manuscript of the Kyrgyz Epic of Manas (玛纳斯史诗). This centuries-old trilogy in verse recounts the exploits of the legendary hero Manas, and his son and grandson in their struggle to resist external enemies and unite the Kyrgyz people. Along with heroic tales such as Dede Korkut and the Epic of Köroğlu, Manas is considered one of the great Turkic epic poems. To get a feeling for how it sounds, listen here to a brief recitation by Manas scholar Elmira Köçümkulkızı.

Mural of Manas in OshAccording to the report (手抄本被发现), a retired cadre named 吾米尔·毛力多 in Xinjiang’s Wuqia County recently donated a 570,000-line, Kyrgyz-language Manas libretto to the local branch of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.

Based on the notes of a famous Manas storyteller or manaschi named 艾什玛特·玛木别朱素普, the text was painstakingly hand-copied by the cadre in the 1950s. At some point during the Cultural Revolution he learned the original had been seized and burnt, so he wrapped his own copy in several layers of cowhide and buried it in his courtyard for safekeeping.

“Now,” the news report quotes him, “I figure it is time to let this hand-copied manuscript see the light of day.”

Intrigued by the gap in time between the manuscript’s burial and its “re-discovery”— after all, the Cultural Revolution ended almost 40 years ago — I wondered why the text of an ancient Turkic epic like Manas is so politically sensitive. [Read more…]